One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.
Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.
How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)
- Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
- Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
- Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
- The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.
Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.
The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.
Ten years have passed since I first met the Sisters from Mara, Tanzania. What began as a remarkable coincidence- a shared name and interest in partnering around a school for girls https://marabhuber.com/2013/11/27/giving-thanks-for-my-name/ – has evolved into something difficult to describe yet undeniably powerful. And as we begin recruiting for the summer 2018 study abroad trip, I am eager to meet the extraordinary students who will both impact and be impacted by the journey. You see, the magic of this trip lies in the people who activate the opportunity, drawn in by their unique reasons and stories, ready to resonate in ways that they cannot and will not know.
Much of the trip is in the design. Dan and I have created an itinerary brimming with contrasts and textures. From bustling Dar es Salaam to Mwanza, then winding around Lake Victoria before nestling into the Mara Region. Certain affordances are guaranteed- the beauty of the dusty roads, the smiling children, the wonders of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
We visit with partners with inspiring lives and stories doing amazing work, eager to share and learn, warmly welcoming us with music, dancing and home-cooked meals.
But other aspects of the trip emerge at their own pace and rhythm. Conversations over endless miles along bumpy roads; surprising moments with villagers or unexpected guests; poignant reflections over family-style dinners set against sunsets or twinkling night skies. These moments cannot be scripted or anticipated, nor can they be erased once the trip has ended.
Indeed, the impacts of our last study abroad trip- summer 2017- are still taking hold, developing in ways that I couldn’t have imagined or planned. Danielle’s final project became a GoFundMe Campaign and is now evolving into a social innovation project, with plans for local women to sew and sell reusable sanitary pads.
Research is being conducted, grants are being written, and the excitement is palpable as new collaborative projects develop and come to life. Over the years, the impacts of our visits and engagement have been impressive, but so are the personal and professional transformations of our students. As they refine their passions and sense of purpose, they weave their experiences into professional and academic goals, moving toward careers that will bring both impact and fulfillment.
So what type of student is best suited for this trip? Certainly someone seeking a high-impact adventure, challenging their assumptions and moving them outside of their comfort zone; someone eager to learn, to increase their cultural competency and global knowledge; ideally someone with a sense of humor who enjoys people and new situations. The trip is open to students from all majors and programs of study. And while UB students are given priority, students from other SUNY and non-SUNY schools are welcome to apply.
To learn more about the study abroad trip and our broader engagement initiative, please visit the fall edition of the UB Alumni Magazine http://www.buffalo.edu/atbuffalo/past-issues/fall-2017/article-page-fall-2017.host.html/content/shared/www/atbuffalo/articles/Fall-2017/features/african-connections.detail.html or browse through Tanzania-related posts on this site. Photos for this post taken by UB Photographer, Doug Levere.
For registration information visit http://www.buffalo.edu/studyabroad.html
This post is written for all who are feeling stuck or unsure how to navigate change.
If you accept the assertion that we are all dealing with design challenges https://marabhuber.com/2017/10/28/redesign/, then resetting is simply a process of realignment. When the context surrounding our lives or work changes dramatically, our patterns of behavior and contributions may no longer fit or be valued. What was once satisfying may feel constraining or even dysfunctional.
I call this dissonance- the state of being out of alignment. It happens at work, in relationships, in virtually all aspects of our lives. Change can be thrust upon us through external events like death, infidelity, shifts in leadership or organizational structure. But it also happens from within, often subtly, compounding over time. Regardless of the source however, change is completely natural and unavoidable, and yet for many, terrifying.
We expend a great deal of energy, strategy and emotion trying to prevent change or slow it down as we grasp for security, sustainability or permanence. And in doing so, we fail to recognize that when viewed through a different set of lenses, change is actually a portal through which we can access growth, humility and perspective- all necessary ingredients for the fulfillment and connectivity that we universally crave.
You see, the secret to resetting lies in developing a sensitivity to the universe of change and differences that spins around us. But rather than trying to stop, prevent or judge the change, it requires a sense of honor and respect as we work towards deeper insights, appreciation and acceptance.
Put another way, resetting requires emotional distance, the ability to remove our feelings and needs when assessing the world around us. Once we release ourselves from our analysis we can begin to observe broader patterns and trends, issues and forces that shape constraints and opportunities, impacting the people and places around us.
As we develop an ability to “feel into” these contextual forces, we can gain insights into opportunities for our own growth and development while releasing the negativity and fear that threaten our success and happiness.
How to reset? Begin by looking around you, considering the internal and external landscape, the ecosystem of structures and people that comprise and influence your world. Start to formulate questions and observations, framing them through words and phrases that convey respect and care. Speak these words out loud in front of a mirror, noting your body language and the way you feel when you say them or imagine the conversations. As you try out different words and observations, work to release any tension or tightness, letting go of negativity, fear or hurt and embracing a more caring and open demeanor. And take the time to observe and reflect on the differences.
Here are some conversation starters with which you can experiment.
Things feel different lately, have you noticed any changes?
What does it feel like to be in your position? What are the pressures that you’re experiencing? What are you most excited about?
I can feel things changing but I’m not sure I understand how or why. Can you share your insights?
I get a sense that the context (of our work) has shifted, what do you see as the new direction? What are you concerned about?
I sense that our relationship is somehow out of alignment. I’d like to understand how things have changed from your perspective.
Once you are able to receive insights about the world around you, without personalizing or getting defensive, you will discover new spaces and opportunities to flex your talents, skills and contributions in ways that add value and feel inherently better. While your relationships and experiences may be different than what you originally expected or even hoped for, you will feel a renewed sense of alignment and stability, and an awareness of the universe of possibilities that is always there but always changing around you.
I had the pleasure of giving three presentations over the past two weeks; one in Western New York and two in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Although the topics varied, they all featured the notion of redesign- the process of realigning programs and structures to address significant changes in context.
Through my presentations I tried to convey the idea that we all find ourselves grappling with design challenges. As the context of our work continues to change at an accelerating rate, our systems are becoming dangerously out of alignment. This manifests itself through diverse symptomology including internal competition, an increasingly unhappy workforce, and missions and goals that are no longer clear or compelling.
Perhaps because of our need for stability (or fear of instability), in the face of change we often cling to existing structures while layering on new programs and initiatives. This state of holding on to structures in the face of significant contextual change puts our systems in a state of stress and vulnerability. And much like our biological systems, resources and energies will naturally shift to maximize the outputs that are most prized or valued. This can result in gaming the system, finding ways to deliver the test scores, enrollments, rankings or other highly valued outputs at all costs.
The good news is that once we recognize (or admit) that we are in a state of misalignment, we can redesign our systems and structures in ways that can strengthen our value proposition and reinvigorate the people who are responsible for implementing and managing the work.
Through my presentations, I offered a simple framework that can guide design and redesign work. By clarifying and working between the three fundamental design elements: context, drivers and structures, we can achieve or re-achieve a state of alignment that can be “pushed out” into all aspects of programming, budgeting and implementation. And by revisiting these elements as contexts continue to shift and flex, we can adapt and innovate while staying true to core mission and values.
Perhaps the best aspect of this framework, and a design approach in general, is that it is equally as powerful when applied to individuals as it is to programs, organizations, communities and systems. Clearly, we are all living and working within complex ecosystems and contexts that present ever-changing opportunities, challenges and threats. By understanding our unique contributions, needs and assets, we can clarify paths and structures that will optimize our impact while allowing us to remain responsive, relevant and nimble. This is the version of sustainability to which we should all aspire.
This past July I led a UB study abroad trip to the Mara region of Tanzania. By all measures the course was a success. All expectations and outcomes were met and the students arrived home safely with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime. Officially, the class is done, but the impacts are just getting started.
As I struggle to communicate the meaning of high-impact experiential learning, I can only offer a glimpse into my world- a world of infinite possibilities and points of connectivity that often leaves me exhausted and exhilarated as I try frantically to keep up.
In the seven short weeks since we’ve returned, so much has happened- is happening. Every day I brace myself for new developments. Here are just a few highlights from this week alone- and it’s only Wednesday:
- Natasha (who was featured on the cover of UB’s recent issue of its Alumni Magazine https://issuu.com/ubaa/docs/at_buffalo_fall17_-_issuu ) is ready to plan a fundraiser for the preschool in Tarime. She has been thinking about the teacher who currently works as a volunteer, and wants to start a fund to ensure that early childhood education is a priority. In preparation, she is thinking about her networks of influence and how to connect her efforts with her Sociology graduate program.
- Danielle- a senior Anthropology student- finds herself completely immersed in an initiative that began as her final course project. With a deep interest in women’s health and specifically the impact of menstruation on girls education, she identified a Tanzania-based organization, Dare Women’s Foundation http://www.darewomensfoundation.org/ interested in bringing a reusable pad project to the Mara region. In less than a week, Danielle has raised almost $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/girl039s-empowerment-in-tanzania and is now coordinating the details of an upcoming training trip towards the goal of utilizing existing sewing projects to begin this new venture. Danielle is also connecting with a faculty member within her Anthropology department to frame her efforts within a research project which will in turn support her involvement in the UB Honors Program.
- My own children will be hosting a book and baked goods sale this weekend to raise money for a poultry project in Tarime. Once mature, the hens will be given to women throughout the region as a means of generating income through the sale of eggs. But the cost of feed and vaccination has exceeded the appropriated grant funding, so the project is in jeopardy and immediate help is needed.
- We’re gearing up for an informal event tomorrow evening that will help build capacity for future trips and engagement efforts. In partnership with the New York chapter of American Women for International Understanding http://www.awiu.org/, we will be featuring photos from UB’s own Doug Levere http://www.douglaslevere.com/gallery/ along with student reflections and videos. Having Doug participate in the trip, along with the contributions of the talented UB Communications team, is yielding impacts beyond anything we could have imagined. Not just for our own immediate benefit, but for our partners like Children’s Dignity Forum http://www.cdftz.org/ who are beginning to share the photos of our visits and utilize them to build further capacity for their own community development work.
Just listing these examples makes my head spin, and yet these are the type of outcomes or outputs that represent the magic of high-impact experiential learning. While the experience itself- in this case our trip to Tanzania- is hugely important, it is not the end product, but instead a vehicle for impacts that can continue to generate, build and transform well beyond the life and limits of the experience.
As we contemplate the potential of higher education to be an engine for innovation, we must insist on delivering offerings that are high-impact by design. No longer settling for localized or siloed outcomes, we have to challenge ourselves to think and design bigger and bolder. Although we cannot know what is possible, we must design with a vision in mind, building models that are generative and foster collaboration and synergies for the benefit of all involved. This represents a new frontier for curricular innovation and I’m so excited to be testing the limits.
Before we left we were instructed to look up the day of the week on which we were born. Our host explained that in Ghana babies are given many names that together represent their unique place in the world. The day of birth is the first name to be given, with others to follow once the baby survives to the eighth day, including, at a minimum, the name of a family member or ancestor to be emulated, a religiously affiliated name and a surname that is usually associated with the father. Listening to a Ghanaian share their full name is like listening to the beginning of a story, my favorite kind of story. A story about people, places and history all woven together into a rich and textured tapestry. A story without a true beginning and one that you hope will never end.
This impression of rich connectedness is what continues to linger with me as I sit and reflect upon my trip. In Ghana, details of birth, life and death matter. People and places matter and serve to elevate the expectations that surround individuals and their future legacies. This is why marriage is taken so seriously, with families investigating the character of potential mates and their respective lineage. With so much at stake, a union must be acceptable and worthy of one’s inherent promise.
And then the slave castle, the final destination of our trip. To bring people who mattered so much- men, women and children; chiefs and honored wives; mothers, daughters, aunties and uncles, each with important legacies and expectations surrounding their lives. And then to strip it all away. To defile, shackle and humiliate. To squeeze them through the place of no return.
People do matter. But their connectedness matters even more. People are part of families and communities. They are from specific places. They are part of stories and legacies that weave together in complex patterns over time. When we elevate people and their stories, we give them honor, we adopt a long-term vision, we think beyond ourselves. But when we break the connectedness and devalue people, the implications reverberate further than we can know.
Even before I left Ghana, I found myself trying to explain the lessons of the castle. Through texts and pictures I told my children that I had stood in the dungeon, that I had looked through the bars and touched the walls of the point of no return. I tried to convey the power of these experiences when juxtaposed against the nobility of lives and stories.
When I think of sending UB students to Ghana, I hope they will experience the extremes in this order, first beholding the elevation of humanity before confronting its annihilation. Somehow the sequence seems important. As my dear and wise friend Oluwafemi once explained, in order to achieve our potential we must continually dip ourselves in gold. This is the gift that Ghana has given me, one that I hope to continue to share.
In 2014 I set out to explore versions of my former self through books that had been particularly dear. I hypothesized that by identifying their specialness upon first reading them, I had somehow infused their pages with my contextualized self, creating a permanent shadow of me at that particular moment in time.
This notion of marking time and discovering points of connection between former and present versions of self is an idea that has fascinated me ever since I was very young. In my post, “Marking Time” https://marabhuber.com/?s=marking+time I explained,
When I was a young child I had a strange image that would often come to me. I would see myself replicated in a long line with my present self somewhere toward the back and many more versions ahead of me, extending way into the future. In this vision I -my current self- would be waving furiously trying to get the attention of my future selves, but to no avail. In retrospect it seems much of my young life was spent racing ahead trying to catch up to the me(s) in the front, seeking out experiences and ideas that would propel me forward.
For me, books have been time machines, allowing me to revisit, reflect, and sharpen my understanding. But until now, my journeys have always been solitary. So imagine my delight when my youngest daughter, Natalie, joined me for an unexpected journey back in time.
The trigger was a science video detailing the impacts of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Through a series of before and after sequences, the narrator followed the impacts of a single predator on a vast and interconnected ecosystem, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of a single manipulation that was initially deemed small and unimportant.
As I listened to Natalie try to explain why she found this to be so utterly compelling, trying to get her head around how far this idea could be taken and extrapolated, I immediately thought of a similar story that had captured my own imagination when I was her age. It was a short story by Ray Bradbury in which a group of hunters traveled back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. The hunters were led on an adventure that was closely controlled, with clear instructions to never leave the trail, that any misstep could alter the details of history, leading to unforeseen consequences and implications.
As I found myself recounting this story, which I hadn’t read in over thirty years, Natalie seemed to appreciate the significance of connection. She recognized the specialness of a common theme and idea fascinating both of us. She somehow saw – or felt- herself in me and me in her, and we both reveled in the intimacy.
Through the magic of the internet, I was able to quickly identify and download A Sound of Thunder. And within minutes, Natalie and I were huddled under a blanket, both enthralled, infusing the virtual pages with the essence of us- together- at this single precious moment in time.
Other posts about rereads https://marabhuber.com/?s=reread
I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Claus and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no. This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound. It draws on the principles of infinite diversity and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible when we work toward the greater good.
From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust and transferable within most contexts and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and insights, remaining open and determined to find something of value. From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy, people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.
To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so, I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford. In some respects, my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored. But interestingly, it does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically-minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem- at the same time- to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they are loathe to admit it.
Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped within. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and re-imagine themselves.
I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may seem unconventional, but since first writing this post (in September, 2014) I have connected with a growing number of Dreamers who share my faith in the promise of possibility. I have met them in rural Tanzania, working to empower women and communities through agriculture, community development and education, and recently on the Mona Campus of Jamaica, striving to strengthen their capacity for research and public health, investing in the promise of collaboration and engagement. And when I travel to Ghana this January, I have a feeling I will meet many more, for suddenly, Dreamers seem to be everywhere I am going. For this, I am truly grateful- and terribly excited.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
(Adapted from original post, September, 2014)
As I talk with women from diverse backgrounds and professions, the notion of “the weeds” seems to resonate universally.
The weeds are a highly emotional place, a vast and interconnected tangle of thoughts, memories, and experiences. Charged with emotion and fear, the weeds are highly sensitive. Once triggered, they ricochet us through patterns and responses, leaving us wounded and depleted as we struggle to regain our sense of balance and control.
Not surprisingly, growth doesn’t happen in the weeds. And yet that’s exactly where many of us find ourselves. Sent there by tragedy, crisis, relationships, and even complacency- almost any life or work event can serve as a trigger.
Over the years, I have developed an acute sensitivity to the weeds. I experience them as creeping vines, wrapping around our ankles or torsos. I can often sense their shadow as they approach- thoughts of self-doubt or defensiveness, a tightening in the throat or stomach. And in others, they manifest as a darkness, draining both energy and light.
From a cognitive standpoint, the weeds represent the lowest levels of our thinking. Laden with details and context, they keep us trapped in our emotions with little room for reflection or insight. But if we are able to leave the weeds behind, we can travel higher in our systems, entering a universe of concepts and ideas. Unlike the closely knitted tangles of emotions, these constructs are expansive and dynamic, able to be nested, stacked, and rearranged as we build and reconfigure our understanding of ourselves, our work and our worlds.
The cognitive differences between the weeds and higher thinking cannot be exaggerated. It’s like comparing the most innovative playground to the rings of Hell. But escaping from the weeds is neither easy nor intuitive. By definition, it involves getting away from danger but also finding something safer. In simple terms, breaking free from the emotionality of the weeds is only part of the solution. We must at the same time embrace the benefits of higher thinking, pulling ourselves upward through textured goals, commitments, and thought patterns. Imagine yourself on a climbing wall, searching for constructs to grab onto as you lift your feet higher.
The good news is that it’s all within our reach, and interest in this new frontier seems to be building. With every month, I’m being asked to speak about these and strategies with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. From companies wanting to provide their associates with tools to reach and dream higher, to women looking for opportunities for advancement, and organizations focused on community impacts, we seem to be collectively yearning for growth and expansion. Perhaps this is an area that is ready to be developed and cultivated. Perhaps the time has finally come for cognitive redesign.
As someone who has studied and thought about these ideas for over thirty years, I am excited and eager to share my strategies and insights. But I am also mindful of the paradigm shift that this approach represents. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts and feedback. Does this notion of the weeds resonate with you? And are we really ready to embrace a more generative approach to growth and advancement?